In Decision to Leave, Park Chan-wook serves up a gloriously inscrutable romantic thriller. Detective Hae-joon (played by Park Hae-il) is investigating a case of a dead climber and meets the climber’s enigmatic wife, Seo-rae (played by Tang Wei). Tight pacing from Park Chan-wook and ferocious performances by Park Hae-il and Tang Wei leave viewers guessing at every turn.
After helming masterpieces like Joint Security Area, Oldboy, and The Handmaiden, director Park returns with Decision to Leave, which follows the uncanny, slow-burn romance between Hae-joon and Seo-rae. Through every forbidden turn and each disconcerting step in the game of seduction between the pair, Park never makes clear the film’s true protagonist or antagonist, criminal or victim. Instead, he leaves us with an excruciatingly ambiguous puzzle about love, innocence, and truth.
Seo-rae is an illegal immigrant from China, but the film later reveals that her grandfather served as a soldier in Korea against Japan in the 1930s and received an official honor as a Korean patriot. Although largely conversant in Korean, her coarse use of the language adds another layer of uncertainty in the push-and-pull with Hae-joon. Viewers who are fluent in Korean will likely find a greater richness and depth to the film through the script’s intelligent wordplay. Is Seo-rae truly not in grief over her husband’s death, or is it just her lack of precision in communicating this? Are our suspicions toward her merely due to language, or is there something more sinister beneath the surface?
An excruciatingly ambiguous puzzle about love, innocence, and truth
Park does an excellent job of slowly revealing the emotional contours of his characters, pulling the curtains back one inch at a time. Seo-rae and Hae-joon are some of the most extraordinary individuals onscreen this year in Korean cinema — memorable, monstrous, and maddeningly impenetrable all at once. In many ways, Decision to Leave crosses into absurdist territories, playing off the mystery of love and the puzzle of the climber’s unnatural death against each other.
It is, therefore, only appropriate that the eye emerges as the central motif of the film amid the webs of distrust, surveillance, and suspicion that envelop both the covert romance and unsolved death. Park is obsessed with eyes and all the human desires and impulses which they animate: wanting to see, fearing to look, seeking truth, concealing reality, and surveilling others.
In the early moments of the film, there is a disturbing close-up shot of ants crawling over the dead climber’s eye. The ants are attracted to the decay, breaking them down further — suggesting a corruption of sight and seeing. There are echoes of Luis Buñuel’s An Andalusian Dog all over Park’s film, particularly in their similar obsession with eyes and the ideological parallels between sight and the visual ontology of cinema itself.
On the surface, eyes represent openness, allowing living things to access and assess others — the proverbial “windows” to other souls. However, in Decision to Leave, Park instead suggests that eyes are equally capable of deceit through their ability to manipulate and surveil.
Further calling into question the nature of sight and how we construct truth from what we see, Hae-joon struggles with insomnia, which gives him painfully dry eyes. At one point, he even dozes off while on a stakeout. There are many shots of Hae-joon using eye drops or struggling to see clearly. Given his occupation as a detective, there is a subversive allegation here against institutions and authorities associated with truth-finding and truth-making.
The camera then turns its gaze upon itself: there are cameras recording Hae-joon and Seo-rae in the interrogation room and when Seo-rae is brushing her teeth alone. Then there are other similar forms of voyeuristic machinery: the two-way mirror in the interrogation room, as well as the binoculars that the detectives use to surveil Seo-rae when she is at home and at the elderly care center.
Inscribed all over the film is a self-reflexiveness about sight, truth, and, critically, the manners in which cinema engages with these two spheres. By the end of Decision to Leave, viewers might find themselves overwhelmed by the film’s questions: how does a film convince us of a character’s goodness or immorality? What exactly do we base our knowledge or feelings towards certain characters on? How does cinema itself operate on both truth and make-believe?
If there is any fault to be found in Decision to Leave, it is in the film’s excursions into morally questionable territories. Some viewers might feel hesitant about the exuberant acclaim that the film has picked up. After all, behind the film’s enigmatic, stylistic veneer, Hae-joon is unfaithful to his wife, unprofessional with boundaries in his job, and, honestly, not doing much to help his team solve the case of the dead climber. The sheen of the film’s camerawork conveniently soothes immediate discomforts and carries the viewer swiftly on — but upon further contemplation, the characters are walking morally tenuous lines.
Ultimately, Park is offering us a cinematic riddle in Decision to Leave. Immigrant tensions, a whodunit mystery, an ill-fated romance, and the isolation of modern life all burn at the edges of this film, yet one can argue that they are hardly relevant at all. At the end, the film only leaves us questioning everything that we have come to see and know — and the marvelous ride that Park has taken all of us on.
Decision to Leave is in theaters on October 14th.